Books on Our Shelves: What They Tell Others about Ourselves

While I was working at a used bookstore in my twenties, my employer was asked in an interview what the value was these days of consumers owning their own physical books. This was the age of ebooks, Amazon, and downsizing. Several used bookstores on the same stretch of street as our store had gone under the past few years, and we were one of the last ones standing. Even still, there were days when we had more people come in looking to get rid of books than to buy them.

So the interviewer’s question was valid. If people couldn’t see the value of owning their own books, what was the point? (If you’re curious, more generally, about an apology for used bookstores, I’ll leave you to read my little tract called “Memoirs of a Bookshop Girl,” which I wrote around that time.)

My employer gave a number of compelling reasons for the value of owning physical books – the tactile, sensory experience of the smell of the book and feel of the paper; the aesthetic nature of books, like art; those kind of things. But if you have to give reasons for people to buy books in the first place, it’s going to be a tough sell. Bibliophiles are born, not made.

After my employer returned from the interview, a retired gentleman who worked part-time at the store off-handedly gave to him another reason: owning your own physical books lets other people have a glimpse of who you are.

It was brilliant. So simple, but true.

Ebooks stored on your device would never allow the kind of access into your mind or soul that shelves upon shelves of books in prominent places in your home would.

For some reason, I’ve lately thought back on this experience and have been wondering: what do my shelves upon shelves of books say about me? Perhaps this is because I’ll soon will be moving a number of my bookshelves as I transport my office, and so it’s given me cause to reflect.

I suppose that, like most other bibliophiles, my collection is eclectic in nature.

In thinking about giving a brief summary of the kinds of books on my shelves, the lines from a children’s book, The Detective Dog by Julia Donaldson, come to mind:

“Books about dinosaurs, books about knights,
Books about planets and meteorites,
Books about princes who turn into frogs
Books about dragons, and books about dogs.”

As I review my shelves, there are the obvious sections of books that come to my mind — the large L.M. Montgomery section; the growing creative nonfiction one; the rows of Oxford World Classics and Penguin novels by English authors; the theology section; the local history one; the full row of writer’s notebooks; the equally full row of my journals; the embarrassing small half-shelf of poetry and even smaller sliver of plays; the large section of Canadian literature; the even larger section of family history; the small section of fairy tales; and the impressive rows of reference books which I’ve rarely cracked open.

From these broad brush strokes, I think it would be obvious what others could tell about me: that I’m a huge L.M. Montgomery fan with an academic bent; that I have a fascination with both reading and writing creative nonfiction, that I love a good old-fashioned novel, that I’ve done an inordinate amount of family history research. Et cetera.

While all these assessments are true, there are also perhaps more subtler truths.

I realize as I scan my shelves that there are several outliers: seemingly miscellaneous books that I don’t know where to file. So I have individual titles tucked at the end of my larger sections, to literally fill in the gaps.

And the bottom shelf of each of my bookcases, filled with books too big to fit on the regular shelves, gives my library the feel of an everyday collection: spiral-bound course packets from university; binders with notes from high school; year books; photo albums; glossy colour page art books; miscellaneous binders without titles on their spines; and a strange combination of books, from French grammar to finances, from Canadian history to cemeteries, and from natural history to certifying to become a professional genealogist.

What do the outlier books say about me?

That I occasionally purchase a book outside of my interests? That I’ve dabbled in something for a bit, or that I’ve shelved a book that was a gift? (As I’ve reviewed my shelves for this post, I’ve surprised myself in finding books I forgot I even had.)

I wonder if it’s not these outlier books — the odd ones out — that tell something more about me, after all. I don’t know. What would you say if you were to peruse my shelves?

It occurs to me that it would be impossible for me to give you a proper gloss of my library, the way it would be if you were here physically to see for yourself. Because the truth is, what’s going to interest you or catch your eye will be very different from the next reader. And what stands out to you may well be more about who you are, than who I am. Because as I think of the many times I’ve perused the shelves of books at others’ homes, I realize I’m often drawn to one or two titles, not entire sections.

And so, perhaps the point that books give a glimpse into who the other person is needs a slight modification: other people’s books give us many opportunities for potential glimpses into who the other person may be. And when we find a title that is familiar, or interesting, or that stands out to us in any other way, that book provides a bridge between us and the owner of the book. The value of perusing someone else’s books, in the end, is the potential for a deeply personal, deeply satisfying, human connection.

Question: What books have you connected over with others? (either books you’ve found on their shelves, or they’ve found on yours)